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Pinball Wizards

Tokyo Diarist

The Japanese gambling game of pachinko is an acquired taste that foreigners rarely acquire. Yet it is adored by millions of “salarymen” those worker bees who keep Japan Inc. humming even during down times. The pachinko parlor in my neighborhood is typical. It’s crowded day and night with dozens of salarymen—who in crumpled suits, cigarettes dangling from their mouths—sit zombie-like as they pump coins into a contraption that looks like a vertical pinball machine. As fluorescent lights glare overhead, syrupy Japanese pop music competes with the deafening sound made by thousands of steel ball bearings cascading in unison.

The game, which originated in the United States in the 1920s but only found a following when it migrated across the Pacific, is simple. It requires virtually no skill. Players launch a barrage of steel ball bearings and watch them ricochet off metal pins, hoping they will land in the winning slots. Players win small prizes that they can exchange for cash. To an outsider, pachinko seems about as relaxing as a root canal, but the Japanese find it a sublime distraction, the perfect narcotic for a nation adrift economically. And, like many narcotics, pachinko is big business, with annual revenue of roughly $250 billion.

A portion of this pachinko money ends up in North Korea, funneled to Pyongyang by ethnic Koreans living in Japan. They are the children and grandchildren of Korean workers forcibly brought to Japan in the first half of the twentieth century, and some of them still have sympathy for Pyongyang, which they see as resisting Japanese and U.S. domination. Shut out of mainstream businesses due largely to Japanese racism, the Koreans have turned to fringe industries like pachinko. Today, Koreans loyal to Pyongyang own about one-third of Japan’s pachinko parlors. So, if President Bush is serious about squeezing Kim Jong Il, he might want to add pachinko profits onto America’s list of North Korean items marked for interdiction. True, pachinko money accounts for a relatively small share of North Korea’s revenue—less than $100 million annually—but the isolated nation trades so little ($2.6 billion annually) that every dollar counts. And, since the Bush administration hopes that every crumb of hard currency denied to North Korea will hasten the day when the Pyongyang regime collapses, it—and Japan—should start looking into this quirky game. Finding pachinko parlors to investigate shouldn’t be hard. Today, even small hamlets have at least one. In Tokyo, they are as ubiquitous as sushi restaurants. In fact, Japan’s pachinko craze occasionally borders on the obsessive. Several years ago, a woman was arrested after her infant daughter, who the woman had left alone in a car for hours while she played pachinko, died of asphyxiation.

The conduit for smuggling pachinko profits, as well as other items, to North Korea is a group barely known in the West—though familiar to many Japanese—called the Chongryon. It represents the 200,000 Koreans in Japan who swear allegiance to the North, roughly 25 percent of the total ethnic Korean population. The organization publishes a daily newspaper and runs a network of schools—schools that, until recently, used textbooks identical to those in North Korea. The group also acts as North Korea’s de facto embassy. I recently visited the Chongryon’s headquarters, a cavernous, foreboding building in a pricey Tokyo neighborhood. There are virtually no windows. Inside, giant paintings of “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il, and his father, “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung, stared down at me. Most Japanese, spooked by all things North Korean, steer clear of the place. Indeed, for decades, Japanese authorities have looked the other way at the organization’s activities, afraid of antagonizing its former colonial subjects. Japan even exempted the Chongryon from taxes.

Japan’s oddly cozy relationship with North Korea, a sworn enemy, extends beyond pachinko. Japan is North Korea’s biggest customer, importing seafood, gourmet mushrooms, men’s suits (not the ultimate in haute fashion but cheap), and plenty of illicit goods, such as amphetamines, from the North. There’s evidence that Japan’s notorious criminal gangs, the yakuza, are working with the North Korean government to tap into Japan’s lucrative drug market. When investigators salvaged a North Korean spy ship in 2001, they found cell phones programmed with the numbers of well-known yakuza bosses. It gets worse. Japanese companies have helped North Korea build ballistic missiles. A North Korean defector recently told the U.S. Congress that 90 percent of the parts used in the guidance systems of Pyongyang’s missiles were smuggled in from Japan.

Public attitudes, though, are beginning to harden in Japan. An early June cartoon in the Japan Times sums up the current mood. The scene is a duty-free shop in the Japanese port city of Niigata. Alongside the usual jewelry, perfume, and cigarettes, missile parts and armaments are for sale. In plain sight of sales clerks, two North Korean agents are walking off with huge missiles under their arms. One of the agents says wistfully to the other, “I kind of miss the old cold war days when they made smuggling more of a challenge.”

The implication—that Japan has been duped—has spurred Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi into action. He has vowed to “crack down more rigorously [on North Korea’s] illegal activities.” He has threatened to revoke the Chongryon’s tax-exempt status, made it more difficult for North Koreans living in Japan to send money home, and ordered rigorous “safety checks” for all North Korean ships that dock in Japanese harbors. That has already prompted one North Korean ferry to cancel a scheduled visit. Another is stranded off Japan’s northwest coast, running low on fuel. (The Chongryon has reacted with a terse statement, accusing the Japanese government of “attempting to sever our ties to our mother country.”) The ship’s captain says he’s prepared to wait until Tokyo permits him to unload his cargo of industrial magnesium. Given the mood in Japan, he could be waiting a long time.

This article originally ran in the July 7 & 14, 2003 issue of the magazine.